“Raise the mainsail!” Captain John Foss calls, and we eagerly move into place. It’s the first day of sailing on our windjammer cruise, and we can’t wait to get going.
I am one of 21 lucky passengers aboard the Schooner American Eagle. Half of us line the starboard side of the vessel, while the others move to the port side. Following the crew’s calls, we grab and pull the rope in rhythm.
The 2,000-square-foot sail is heavy, and it takes all our efforts to raise it almost 70 feet. After it’s in place, the crew raises the foresail, hauls up the anchor and raises the headsails.
With a snap, the wind catches our sails, and we’re off, completely powered by Mother Nature. The sight of a tall ship bending with the wind is majestic and strangely moving. My boyfriend, Ben, and I sit down on the gleaming wooden deck with the others, watching the sight with wonder.
Schooner American Eagle
Cruising in Maine is a unique experience. Instead of massive cruise ships with swimming pools and shopping malls, a small fleet of historic wooden tall ships ply these waters, offering small group cruising to adventurous and nature-loving passengers.
This week, our home is the Schooner American Eagle, which was built in 1930. For 53 years, the American Eagle was a member of the Gloucester fishing fleet. Captain John Foss bought it in 1984, and carefully restored her to her current glory. The vessel is 92′ long, and can hold up to 26 guests.
The American Eagle is one of 10 traditional tall ships in The Maine Windjammer Association; most of the vessels have been designated National Historic Landmarks. A few are more than a hundred years old.
The fleet sails along Maine’s rugged coast in the protected waters of Penobscot Bay. The coastline of Maine is wild and beautiful. Though it’s 293 miles long, the coast is so jagged that when stretched out, it would reach more than 4,500 miles long.
Captain John looks content as he heads the American Eagle out to sea, coffee cup in hand. “In what other job do you have someone cook for you all summer and you get to go sailing 120 days a year and meet interesting people?” he says.
Captain John grew up in Maine and has been sailing most of his life. “Maine has an incredible cruising area,” he says. “There is a good little harbor every couple of miles. We’re lucky that the area has never been industrialized. Things here are well cared for.”
“This is one of the two best places in the world to sail,” he jokes. “We don’t know where the other one is.”
The American Eagle is in pristine condition. There are two living areas below deck, along with a tiny galley. Our accommodations are simple. Ben and I have a small cabin big enough to fit a double and a single bunk, with a tiny sink, several lights and hooks for hanging clothes. There are warm wool blankets if it gets cool at night. At first it seems tight, but we finally figure out how to organize and move about in the room.
There are restrooms and two showers on board. In truth, the term “shower” is a loose one. It’s rather like a small stall with a kitchen hose sprayer which allows us to get wet, soap up and then rinse down. It’s not relaxing, but it does the trick.
One of the best parts of sailing on the American Eagle is getting to know the six-man crew and the other passengers.
“There is an easy congeniality on board,” the American Eagle brochure had promised — and it’s true.
Everyone is open and friendly. We get to know folks from Texas, Boston, Michigan and elsewhere, and enjoy the wide range of personalities and ages on board. Jennifer and Scott are a couple from Seattle, celebrating their 10th anniversary with a sailing cruise. We joke, swap stories, drink wine and lounge on deck, soaking in the scenery and enjoying the fun camaraderie.
Dining is a huge part of any cruise, and the American Eagle is no exception. Meals are served family style, all-you-can-eat. Andy is our cook, and he makes every homemade meal in the tiny galley on a wood-burning stove. We can hardly believe the good meals he turns out from his simple kitchen. Meals include lots of fresh fruits and local produce, fresh baked breads and pies, hearty soups and more.
Meals are served on deck or in the dining area below. It’s strange how the fresh air and the smell of the sea can really increase the appetite.